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Wednesday 1 October 2014

Vincent Hogan: Nash's thunderbolts sounding alarm bells for GAA rule-makers

Published 28/09/2013 | 05:00

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Anthony Nash remonstrates with referee Brian Gavin after his free was charged down by Clare goalkeeper Patrick Kelly
Anthony Nash shoots to score Cork’s second goal from the 13-metre line after being awarded a free against Clare in the drawn All-Ireland final

Only those with a taste for travel by gurney and taking dinner through a straw could happily face down Anthony Nash's short-range missiles in anything less than a reinforced jeep.

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Which is why Cork's young goalkeeper is so exercising hurling minds today. His remarkable talent will force change upon the game because he has exposed an ambiguity in its rules that, suddenly, looks untenable. The same ambiguity that one old soldier has been flagging for some time.

Nash doesn't so much hit a ball as laser it. His strike is so pure, so venomous, the sound it emits could be the explosive pop of a detonating dynamite cap. And hurling's concern is that it might yet do commensurate damage.

In the game's history, nobody has hit 20-metre frees precisely from the 20-metre line, because they've never been compelled to. The greatest free-takers hurling has known all stole what yardage they could in the course of lifting for the strike.

It's just, largely, theirs were stealthy, pickpocket crimes. Nash's difference is he taps on the squad car window, then goes and raids a bank.

He does so with impunity, because the rule has more holes in it than a colander. It denies defending players any right to leave their goal line until the ball is actually struck. In other words, it reduces them to shop-window mannequins. Advance early, as Patrick Kelly did in the drawn game, and – technically – there should be a re-take.

Fair? No, but that's the rule.

It's nine years now since Noel Skehan was interviewed for 'The Chosen Ones,' a book written by Martin Breheny and Colm Keys of this parish to celebrate the first 1,000 All Stars. Skehan spoke then of the 20-metre free anomaly as his "pet hate in hurling."

In fact, he recalled having regular arguments with Eddie Keher during their playing days about how the rule was skewed so dangerously in favour of the free-taker.

Skehan explained: "I can't understand why the striker is allowed to run in several yards before taking a 21-yard free or a penalty. I know people will accuse me of complaining because I was a goalkeeper, but it's not just that. Surely a 21-yard free should be taken from the line, not from several yards closer to the goal.

PENALISED

"Yet, if a goalkeeper steps outside the small square when taking a puck-out, he is penalised. That's plain daft. It can be dangerous allowing a player to run in towards the 14-yard line before making his strike, but nothing is being done about it."

That danger is the matter now exercising legal minds in Croke Park.

It has been speculated that the unique power of Nash's strike, effectively detonating on the 13-metre line, could be enough to collapse the face guard of a defender's helmet. Worse, imagine the potential of a direct hit on someone's Adam's apple?

Playing-rule change is not, technically, on the GAA's agenda again until 2015, but there is a discretionary option available to the Rules Revision Committee in the event of anything they might consider an emergency. And Anthony Nash, unwittingly, looks to have taken them to that place.

Clare will, undoubtedly, prioritise confining him to the Cork goal for the duration of today's replay, but how will James McGrath officiate on the matter if they fail?

Kelly, Nash's opposite number, has already indicated that he will – again – charge forward from the moment of first contact with the sliotar. In other words, the Clare goalkeeper has stated his intention to break the rule. So, if Nash's effort is blocked, will McGrath demand a re-take?

And, given the clear theft of maybe seven yards by a man armed with a shot almost as unstoppable as rifle-fire, would he be morally right to do so?

This isn't Nash's problem, it's hurling's. His ability has effectively outgrown the game he plays in the same way, almost half a century ago, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar outgrew college basketball in America. Back then, authorities outlawed the slam-dunk because Abdul-Jabbar – a seven foot-plus giant with UCLA – was so accomplished at the skill, he became unstoppable. Only after he left college was the slam-dunk restored to college basketball.

Sometimes one person's talent asks questions of their sport never asked before. Think Lawrence Taylor changing the way defence was played in American football or Tiger Woods all but rewriting the rules of championship golf course design.

Nash is that to hurling. If he struck a ball any harder, health and safety would have to stop customers buying tickets for behind the goals.

And the Cork 'keeper's power now highlights how the modern game needs modern rules and, in their absence, even policing. Nine years after Noel Skehan sounded an alarm, hurling maybe has no option but to listen.

If not, the game might wisely carry a government health warning.

Irish Independent

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